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Demographics, War and More   (July 16, 2005)

Academic research suggests that armed conflicts are most likely when the population of young males vis a vis the total population is abnormally high. Although I can't find a link to the study, I recall one that showed the correlation was evident in the American Civil War and both world wars. The take-away from this is obvious: wars and conflicts will go away not when they're resolved militarily but when the unstable mass of volatile young men age into their 30s: World Peace, Thanks to Old Men?

The recent high birth-rate driven population explosion in the Mideast and Africa has created just such a huge "bubble" of underemployed, angry, disenfranchised young men. As a result, some C.I.A. studies suggest that the Mideast will be rife with conflict until about 2015, when this cohort has moved into middle-age and the birthrate has dropped. Africa, sadly, has even greater demographic problems: the death of middle-aged parents from AIDS is creating an enormous cohort of poorly nourished, poorly educated, often abandoned orphans.

Some observers believe this correlation is being used to demonize the young and restless: Angry Young Men.

But the politicizing of the correlation does not negate the correlation. The importance of the correlation is precisely that it operates on a larger scale than mere politics; it is a population dynamic with roots deep in animal population behavior.

Perhaps this abundence-of-angry-young-men-leads-to-conflicts correlation is just one of a larger subset of similar population dynamics--chief among them being the rise of populations as new food sources are exploited and the rapid die-off of these populations when those resources are depleted. This is, after all, the pattern followed by all organisms. In untrammeled Nature, most species are unable to fully exploit their environment due to pressure from predators and the limitations of disease, climate and food. We humans, freed long ago from serious predation and all but the most severe climate and disease restrictions by our agriculture and tools, appear to have no such restraints on our population. Clearly, the 6.5 billion humans now alive are testament to that unfettered trajectory.

But Nature has mechanisms which can rear up to lay waste to even the most spectacularly successful species. The process may begin with overcrowding, which leads to conflict and diminishing returns on previously successful food procurement strategies. These result in a widespread reduction in the population's immune strength, which combined with the physical overcrowding, enables the rapid transference of disease.

Diseases which were sequestered in remote populations are suddenly free to spread through a much wider and less resistant population, enabling rapid mutation of new more virulent strains of the disease. The most famous example of such a disease is the Black Death plague, which killed a third of Europe's population and untold millions elsewhere on the globe before dying out--that is, either killing every suseptible person or encountering an immune response robust enough to vaccinate the victim against future infections.

It took many generations simply to repopulate the villages which had been abandoned wholesale by a rapidly decreasing population.

Given humanity's dependence on a handful of grain crops, the same effect could be rendered by the wide scythe of disease-borne death decimating one of these essential cereal crops.

Ever-restless humanity has also added to the mechanisms Nature might turn to for a species-wide die-off. As we heat up the planet by burning immense quantities of hydrocarbons, thus releasing greenhouse gases in the millions of tons, we may be disrupting irreplaceable sources of food such as the Gulf Stream and various breadbasket areas of the planet.

Last but not least, we have weapons of mass destruction, which could be used with terrible consequences on overcrowded megalopolises.

In our great species-centric hubris, we tend to look at these problems through the lens of politics or national self-interest or even spiritual righteousness. But the truth is more likely that planetary and species-wide forces beyond human meddling are already in play, and we are largely reduced to observers, able at best to tend the leading edges of the forces we have unleashed with our agricultural and tool-making success.

Perhaps that is too bleak an assessment; perhaps we can yet slow the global warming juggernaught and eradicate the potential for a global pandemic from avian flu or its equivalent. But it's worth looking at our species from the disinterested perspective of a population biologist, and considering the dynamics of the environment and species from that longer, broader view.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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